HILL AIR FORCE BASE — As the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Paris Peace Accords nears, two former prisoners of war recalled on Friday their experience being held captive and tortured in Vietnam, and what it was like to finally return home.
The two men, Col. Lee Ellis and Lt. Col. Jay Hess, both retired United States Air Force, spent about five years in a cell in the Hoa Lo Prison, a notorious POW camp located in Vietnam's capitol. They told their story as they toured the Vietnam War exhibit at Hill Air Force Base.
Hess, from Farmington, gave input on the exhibit, but Ellis saw it Friday for the first time.
The exhibit stirred emotions for the fighter pilots, who were shot down and thrown into the prison that became synonymous with brutal treatment of American POWs including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who spent more than five years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam.
The stories the prisoners tell are among the most compelling and terrifying imaginable, and the bond among the survivors is strong.
"The worst of it for me was, first of all, the fear of being tortured, and I'm not being strong enough to beat them at the torture game," Ellis said. "Second was the depression of being locked up all of the time, especially in the small cells, without a lot of contact with others."
The Hoa Lo Prison, more commonly known as the Hanoi Hilton after prisoners there sarcastically began referring to it as such, was demolished in the 1990s, but memories of the torture suffered there remain. Prisoners endured miserable conditions, including poor food and unsanitary conditions.
Severe torture methods were often used at the prison during interrogations, including rope bindings and irons. The interrogations were meant less to gather military information than to push the prisoners to make anti-American statements, which would be viewed as propaganda victories. Prisoners held on to anything that would help them get through the ordeal.
"I think I always believed I would go home someday," Lee said. "So, my job was to do my best and hang on."
The signing of the Paris Peace Accords in 1973 saw the end of decades of war with the U.S. and the release of prisoners from the Hanoi Hilton.
"For two years after I got back from Vietnam, everything was a comparison to what I'd been through: ‘Wow, I don't hurt, I'm not too hot or I'm not too cold. I'm not hungry, and man, the bed's soft. Man, is that a warm shower,'" Hess said.
Both men are grateful they had a chance to return to the U.S. to pursue their passions and raise families. As one of their cellmates put it, any day when the lock on the door is on the inside is a good day.
"How could I be so lucky? So fortunate? It's a good life," Hess said.